After six rounds of the Serie A, two surprise teams sit in UEFA Champions League spots. Roman outfit Lazio sit in first while Napoli occupy the third position. After the high-profile acquisitions that A.C. Milan and Juventus made, and to a lesser extent Genoa, along with the form of Sampdoria to close last season, very few people thought that Lazio and Napoli would be in this position. It's early days in Serie A and it's difficult to draw definite conclusions at this point, but six matches is enough evidence to get a head start.
So far, the catalysts of the hot starts of Lazio and Napoli have been their new high-profile signings, Hernanes and Edinson Cavani. So far, Cavani has contributed five goals to Napoli's cause while Hernanes has tallied a goal and two assists. The statistics don't tell the entire story, though. Both players have been involved in the build-up play in most of their teams' goals. If soccer assists were tallied like hockey assists, Cavani and Hernanes would have at least five each.
Last year, while he wasn't poor, Fabio Quagliarella was slightly disappointing for Napoli. As a result, Napoli bought Cavani from cash-strapped Palermo and shipped of Quagliarella to Juventus (who, last time I checked, are supposed to be a bigger club). Early in the season, Cavani has provided two things Quagliarella didn't: Consistency and creativity. Cavani has put in a solid performance in each one of Napoli's matches this season and has created more for his teammates than Quagliarella ever did.
Napoli underachieved last year, but were a good side for the most part. This was not the case for Lazio, who looked like they would be a relegation dogfight up until the last four weeks of the season. Hernanes has completely transformed the team, adding an incredibly athletic and creative presence that they didn't have previously.
The momentum that these players have carried into this season has probably played a part in their hot starts. While Hernanes' former side Sao Paulo was knocked out of Copa Libertadores by eventual champions Internacional, Hernanes played extremely well in the Round of 16 and Quarterfinal rounds of that competition. Unlike the international players for Italy and some other nations, Edinson Cavani emerged from the World Cup as a new star, one of the key cogs in an Uruguay team who went on an impressive run to the Semifinals.
Besides Cavani, Napoli are a team with a surprising amount of depth. While they have yet to perform to their best of their abilities, bench players Hassan Yebda and Jose Ernesto Sosa should provide fantastic options off the bench or filling in for players with fitness issues once they are integrated into the side and comfortable with Serie A. After a great loan spell with Estudiantes, Sosa has re-established himself as a highly regarded attacking midfield player who should provide excellent cover for Marek Hamsik. Yebda was one of the few bright spots for Portsmouth last year and he has performed well for Algeria in the past, so he should do well in rotation with Walter Gargano and Michele Pazienza.
Lazio do not have the depth of Napoli, but there is one thing that they have to look forward to. Incredibly, they sit in first place right now despite some pretty poor finishing. If Sergio Floccari, Tommaso Rocchi, and Mauro Zarate finished half of the chances that Hernanes provided for them, he would have somewhere in the neighborhood of ten assists and Lazio would appear to be far and away the best team in Serie A. Based on what these three players have done previously in their careers, it's safe to assume that they are better finishers than they have shown this season. Midfielders Cristian Ledesma and Mark Bresciano are yet to play to the best of their abilities either. Lazio is in first place with a number of their forward thinking players playing below their capacity, and that is a scary thought for the rest of Serie A.
Right now, many of Lazio and Napoli's contenders for Champions League places in Serie A are in serious trouble. Roma are a team in crisis, despite their late winner against Inter Milan. Juventus have looked impressive at times, but their defense is questionable at best. Despite some seemingly astute signings, Genoa are staring mid-table mediocrity in the face. Sampdoria and Fiorentina are off to poor starts. The Champions League places are there for the taking.
With their very good top-end talent and solid depth, Napoli are a team that look good to stay in or around the top four places for the remainder of the season. It is difficult to pick out four teams who are better than Napoli, taking everything into consideration. It would probably take something completely unforeseen and out of the ordinary for them to drop out of Champions League contention.
The case of Lazio is a little different. They don't have the talent or depth of Napoli, but they're sitting in first place without playing their best. Lazio should actually be able to play better football than they have this season, even though they way they've played so far has put them on 13 points through six games. So, could they finish near the top of the table? Quite possibly. More than likely, though, their lack of depth will be their downfall. When injuries set in as the season goes on, Lazio will not be able to cope as well as not only Napoli, but Juventus, Inter Milan, and A.C. Milan. They look like a team that should finish in the top seven, but Champions League will be a tall order.
Despite the final outcome of this season for these two teams, their hot starts have certainly made for a fantastic story. When teams can achieve great success over the big boys by making astute mid-level signings, it's wildly entertaining and good for football.
Who doesn't love a story about 11 decent players who came together and played team football to beat the big bad giant? Well, in this case, and this is the only context where this isn't incredibly inappropriate and sadistic, I guess it's 11 guys beating up the Old Lady.